The problem of making a documentary about a showman is that it’s hard not to be ensnared by him. WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is so focused on WeWork’s turbulent co-founder, Adam Neumann, that it ultimately loses the plot.
WeWork, you may recall, was the subject of a tremendous scandal around the disclosures in the S-1 document required for its IPO. (The company is now attempting to go public using a SPAC, which means someone other than the SEC is doing the due diligence.) WeWork, premiering April 2nd on Hulu, is director Jed Rothstein’s abbreviated retelling of the events around the troubled company — but a lot of the weird details that made the WeWork story so riveting are lost.
Some of the footage of Neumann is compelling. In the first few minutes of the documentary, we see a haggard Neumann trying to film a video for his IPO roadshow; very quickly, he lifts a leg, lets out an audible fart, and then scolds the crew for laughing too long. But the documentary’s focus on Neumann’s kooky antics in some ways obscures his veritable army of enablers, from Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son to his co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, who is barely mentioned.
In doing this, the movie makes the same mistake that Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser does: it obscures just how weird things were at WeWork. Adam Neumann probably would have been allowed to continue smoking weed and investing in wave pools forever if the company had turned a profit. When WeWork was on the upswing, his eccentricities were treated as proof of his genius. (Steve Jobs was eccentric, too!) The story isn’t Adam — it’s a dysfunctional business.
To the movie’s credit, it gives the value proposition for WeWork. See, 2008 was a real estate crisis — though we remember the housing crisis, commercial real estate crashed, too. WeWork was a high-risk arbitrage play: sign a long-term lease with a distressed property at a low rate, design a cute workspace, and then charge people to work there. WeWork’s insight was to design in ways that catered to millennials: great coffee, welcoming decor, good food.
Unfortunately, the documentary didn’t stick with real estate. Had Rothstein done so, there would have been more detail on how WeWork rented buildings from Adam Neumann. Ideally, there also would have been a glimpse into WeWork’s January 2019 rebranding to The We Company. This move cost WeWork $5.9 million, which went to We Holdings LLC, controlled by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey. (The deal was later unwound.) Both related-party transactions would have required approvals — it would have been nice to know how those meetings went and who was there.
Instead, these major red flags are mentioned briefly at the end, as part of the S-1 scandal. Rather than hard-nosed reporting, we get a lot of footage of Adam and generalizations about millennials. WeWork was something to believe in for a lot of vulnerable young people. This movie isn’t the first time WeWork has been compared to a cult and won’t be the last. (The title of Wall Street Journal reporters Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell’s forthcoming book is The Cult of We.)
The cult-y company wasn’t exactly unusual at the time; it’s a feature of Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, too. Some of WeWork’s woo-woo vibe comes from Rebekah Neumann, who ran WeGrow, the school portion of The We Company. Rebekah studied at the Kabbalah Centre and got Adam to attend as well. That spirituality was good for business since the Kabbalah headquarters was also where Adam met early investors such as Ashton Kutcher. Arguably, without Rebekah’s influence, WeWork wouldn’t have been able to play as much on its employees’ need to believe. The closest WeWork comes to explaining any of this is a shot in which we glimpse a red string bracelet on Adam’s wrist.
A consistent feature of reporting on Adam is how charismatic he’s said to be. But this movie doesn’t deliver a charismatic leader, either — just a repetitive one. That’s a limitation of the footage: it’s all stuff Adam knows is being shot, and it’s all in service of a WeWork PR campaign. So that footage wouldn’t include, for instance, the evening all-hands where Neumann talked about firing 7 percent of staff — then handed out shots and had Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels play a set that included “It’s Tricky.” To get anecdotes like that, you have to talk to people who were there. The documentary does this a little, but the employees are underused.
Though we see Joanna Strange, the company’s first whistleblower, her appearance is brief — and the documentary doesn’t mention that WeWork sued her, and even sicced the FBI on her. (In fact, though the court system is seething with WeWork lawsuits, we get very little mention of any legal action.) Strange is one of the primary sources for Bloomberg’s Foundering podcast, which details what the company cost its employees. Her recordings, aired on that podcast, show us what Adam sounded like when he didn’t know he was on the record — and contains far more commentary from WeWork employees.
I also would have liked to hear more about WeLive, which sounds like a college dorm for twenty-somethings. Bonds were apparently intense; if you had friends outside WeLive, they came over once and never returned. Gradually, people who lived at WeLive formed a closed community. I would have loved to know more about who chose to live there and why. Hell, WeLive is probably its own documentary. It would have been nice, too, to hear from a WeGrow parent or three.
The worst whiff is the movie’s corny ending. You see, everyone who was interviewed talks about the importance of community while putting their masks back on — because, of course, this was filmed during the pandemic.
Here’s the thing: community is powerful! After all, that’s what binds people to cults even when they are experiencing doubt. Cult members aren’t stupid; they are usually educated, conscientious people who want to do good in the world, according to cult expert Janja Lalich. They’re just vulnerable — much like twenty-somethings who’ve never had jobs before and don’t know what’s normal in a workplace.
To end WeWork with inane platitudes about the importance of community is also to sell WeWork’s employees short. These people, often very young, worked grueling hours and therefore had little time outside their jobs. That kept them bound to their co-workers, the only form of community many of them had — and made it much harder to quit. When the IPO blew up, Adam got a golden parachute while these hard-working employees found out their stock options were worthless. They deserved better from WeWork. They also deserved better from this documentary.
WeWork was expanding so fast that its offices frequently weren’t done on the first day they were open; the carcinogenic fumes in the phone booths were, it turns out, the tip of the shoddy iceberg. (Foundering has the best account of the mundane horrors WeWork employees dealt with: beer keg disasters, buildings that opened without bathrooms, condom wrappers in upsetting places, and thundering herds of mice.) The documentary WeWork feels like a rushed attempt to slap together archival footage, and in so doing, tells the story of one wild and crazy guy. If I’m McKelvey — or a WeWork board member, or anyone else who should have reined Adam Neumann in — I’d breathe a sigh of relief: I’m off the hook. Much like WeWork itself, Rothstein’s movie delivers mostly bombast, with little substance to back it up.